031032114X_yourchurch_frontIn my book, Your Church Is Too Small, I argue that sectarianism is almost always found where disunity abounds among Christians. This is not a novel argument but one that Christians in general, and conservative Christians in particular, do not see clearly enough. We are far more sectarian than we generally think when we consider our own views and actions.

The word sectarianism comes from the Latin word secta, which means a faction or party. It comes from the word sequi, which meant “to follow.” Generally sectarians follow a sect leader, or leaders, of some type. The word sect generally referred, in church history, to a group that broke away from a larger group, often in protest over distinct views. If used this broadly the term can refer to almost any religious disagreement. In this absolute sense the earliest Christians were a sect of the Jews.

As I use the term sectarianism it more generally refers to a doctrinaire commitment to one’s own version or views about the church and the faith. It often results in narrow-minded devotion deeply rooted in prejudice and emotion. Those who disagree are condemned, sometimes harshly. In history Christians have killed Christians because of sectarian response. Some sectarians disavow all relationship to an established Christian Church. A correspondingly negative connotation is found in the modern word tribalism

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  1. John Metz November 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    This is a challenging post, one that I agree with but also one that has a lot of implications. It is also one that disappoints me in that there are not a lot of responses.
    You and I both have a view of what the church is and what it should be and neither of us appreciate sectarianism as you have defined it. My question to you (and to your readers) as one who holds a strong view of this matter is this: What is it in your vision of the universal church that protects or keeps you from sectarianism? This is not meant as a challenge to you but as an opportunity for you to speak. It is not exactly a softball question as it is a very serious matter. Rather, it is a question that I think you and perhaps some of your readers will rise to.
    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

  2. Tom Burns November 30, 2011 at 8:00 am

    “Love one another” is Jesus’ prescription to avoid sectarianism. And this command included “as I have loved you” and came immediately after he washed their feet, including Judas’ feet! The question then is how do we live out “love one another”, not institutionally but relationally.

  3. BrianK November 30, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    John A. — thanks again for another piercing, well-thought-out article.
    John M. — your question is an excellent one, and has my vote on the “entrance exam” of any pastor: “What is it in your vision of the universal church that protects or keeps you from sectarianism?”
    My answer is this: Humanity and the grace of God. My vision of the universal church is a picture of human beings in need of the grace of God. Each sect catches one or two good aspects of our needs. Yet it is only when we put all the broken shards of glass together do we see God’s beautiful mosaic.
    Whenever my methods or piety or doctrine is challenged, I find peace and willingness to learn and change by remembering that I am human and so are all those around me. The person who challenges my viewpoints is human.
    These days I find no greater unifying thought than our humanity: our common need for grace, love and truth.

  4. Christian Reyes November 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I believe the Biblical narrative tells us that sectarian or tribal inclinations were divinely embedded within the course of humanity at the tower of Babel. Especially institutionally. Division is the curse and judgement of God.
    A curse divinely implanted can only be divinely removed.
    This dis-unifying factor keeps the world safe from itself. The episodic rise of regional tyrannies such as Nazism,Communism and Colonialism(?) shows what can happen when ‘The Tower of Babel’ is allowed to build again.
    A trans-racial and transnational people called by Christ name is the one institution where the curse does not apply. God said no! to Nimrod, but yes! to Jesus. Christian unity is the(?) witness to the world. A interracial global society blessed by God to ‘fill the earth’ once again. The carpenter is still working!

  5. Bentohwestloop.blogspot.com November 30, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks, John, for a short and sweet post on a bitter subject: sectarianism, tribalism, elitism, or a barricade mentality in the church.
    Would it be fair to say that sectarianism arose when the Christians in Corinth decided to follow their preferred leader, be it Cephas, Apollos, Paul, or even Chirst (1 Cor 1:12)?
    When I posed a question, “Why do we have divisions (in the church)?” (http://www.ubfriends.org/2010/11/why-do-we-have-divisions/) it seemed that sectarianism arises when the Christian leader acts like a boss, rather than a servant, and when he pushes/imposes his preferred ministry model or method or doctrine, rather than proclaim the glorious mysteries of God–the gospel (1 Cor 4:1).

  6. John Metz December 3, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks John and all your readers for addressing this crucial issue.

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